Media quirks are bad news

Annoyances: Cliches, self-glorification, lack of explanation -- newspapers, radio and TV regularly commit these journalistic sins.

April 15, 2001|By Ernest F. Imhoff

Newspapers are still the best way to process daily news, explain complex situations and bring opposing viewpoints together in calm, rational formats.

But they can drive you crazy.

Some days the papers can seem like the Earth appeared to Charles K. Johnson. The president of the International Flat Earth Research Society who died March 19 said the Earth was a disc with the North Pole at the center and a 150-foot wall of ice around the edge, the moon landing was a hoax staged in an Arizona hangar, Australia could not possibly be "down under," sunrises and sunsets were optical illusions and Moses was a fellow flat-Earth man.

There's a lot to appreciate in newspapers if you want to be informed. Or amused. How can you ignore Philippe V. Hababou, a French national who violated U.S. campaign finance laws by funneling cash to the successful 1996 campaign of Sen. Robert Torricelli, of New Jersey? "I didn't realize how easy it was to buy or get close to an American politician," Hababou told the New York Times. "When money is involved, they don't check anything."

Indeed, newspaper stuff, small and big, can annoy, and not just the editorials and political cartoons. But because "the news" to many Americans is TV news, let's consider the news media in general.

Point One.

Mass media thrives in Cliche Country. Many Americans speak and write in frozen-food phrases. Just stow once-catchy images in the freezer, heat those crab puffs in the microwave and serve again and again. Television and radio are guilty of felonies, newspapers of misdemeanors. Here is a fanciful combination of real cliches and phrases.

Know what I mean? I'm, like, we've been there, done that, but, you know, my take is America needs a jump start. We can send a man to the moon, but we can't find a level playing field or move to the next level or climb the mountain.

Al Gore should fall between the cracks, but others say nothing could be further from the truth. Julia Roberts may be drop dead gorgeous and to die for, but she does need to raise the bar.

Bill Clinton's larger than life, yet the bottom line is he needs a wake-up call in ethics. George W. Bush is becoming an icon who resonates with many and blows people away but he's headed for a slippery slope. At this point in time, Alan Greenspan is playing hardball but wait'll you see him slam-dunked.

The crime of the century occurred several times in the 20th century and it's likely to occur several times in this one. When it happens we'll be shocked, amazed and devastated. (The "devastation" threshold is low today; listen to people when their fries are underdone.)

Television is not rocket science or brain surgery or cutting edge technology, it's a no-brainer. Meanwhile, newspapers are going south. People today need to either push the envelope or get closure or do a breakthrough, like, you know, get over this cliche business. See what I'm saying?

Point Two.

People wonder about the unexplained origin or meaning of a story's word, often non-English. They search and get frustrated while the reporter, critic or anchor person is busy telling us about the ultimate meanings, ramifications and future impact of the realities, combined with a little of his or her own cleverness.

A recent book review in an out-of-town newspaper used two German words (Zeitgeist and Schadenfreude) and two French phrases (le mot juste and amour fou). Chinese and Russian next review? In order, the words mean spirit of the times, enjoyment of others' misfortunes, the right word and lovesick.

Few newspapers used the American spy plane incident as an excuse to tell interested readers that Hainan Island, where the 24 military personnel landed, became part of China about 200 B.C., has a 6,000-year inhabited history, 7.7 million people, a year-round tropical resort climate with no winter, two mountain ranges more than 5000 feet high while being roughly on the same latitude as Hawaii and its 34,000 square kilometers are known as "The end of heaven and the corner of the sea."

Names are constantly in the news in The Sun and other papers with no explanation.

What does Falun Gong mean? Or Mir? What's the origin of Ehime Maru? Or Iditarod? For whom was the H. L. Hunley Confederate submarine or Alzheimer's disease named?

If newspapers, the Internet, television or radio give origins or meanings of words like these, they do so grudgingly. Better read that first story or you'll never know. The Enoch Pratt Free Library and other sources helped on these words:

Falun Gong is a spiritual community using exercise and an "evil cult" outlawed by China since 1999. One reference says "fa" refers to universal laws and principles. "Lun" means wheel. Roughly, it means the wheel of laws. "Gong" is a form of energy derived from "cultivation practice." One meaning is given as cultivating hearts in accordance with principles of truth, compassion and tolerance.

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